Constance Talmadge – Film’s First Heroine

Constance-TalmadgeD.W. Griffith’s 1916 masterpiece, Intolerance, is a marvel of nonlinear narrative, innovative film editing, eye-popping sets and great acting. In a star-making role, Constance Talmadge (1897-1973) has the distinction of playing film’s first “feminist heroine,” although this modern concept would have been foreign to her. Talmadge plays a protagonist as tough and as non-dependent on a man as Sigourney Weaver in Aliens, Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs, or any other heroine you can name.

The Heroine
Talmadge portrays the Mountain Girl in the Babylonian arc of Intolerance. She’s wonderful as the saucy girl who comes down from the hills and is enthralled by the excitement of the city. Dressed in a pelt, she watches a parade when the Rhapsode, an agent of the High Priest of Bel, makes romantic overtures toward her. She looks bored and scorns his advances, preferring instead to watch the parade. He kisses her lightly on the neck. She rebuffs him and causes a commotion.

The Mountain Girl’s brother drags her to court, after some struggle and resistance, and tells the court “she is incorrigible.” He describes how he must protect himself from her physical aggression. She is beckoned forward by the judge, but soon engages in a clawing, scratching fight until a judgment is pronounced and ordered: she is to be sent to the marriage market to get a good husband. On the marriage block, Talmadge is hilarious as she blithely eats onions and kicks at the men who come closer to inspect her. But then, Prince Belshazzar passes by and takes pity on the Mountain Girl. He hands her a clay tablet that states she is free to marry or not marry as she chooses. She swears her eternal allegiance to him. Later, she overhears the Rhapsode in a plot (with the High Priest) to side with Cyrus of Persia against Belshazzar.

As the he city is attacked, the Mountain Girl dons a soldier’s armor and joins the battle with her bow and arrows. As a woman warrior she exults in killing the enemy and joins in the revels to celebrate the victory of Cyrus. Again she meets the Rhapsode, now drunk, and flirts with him to get the password that will allow men through the city gates. Still in her military garb, she grabs a chariot (after shoving out the male driver) and follows the High Priest out of the city towards the enemy camp. At the camp she learns of a second planned attack and races back to the city to warn Belshazzar.

As she tries to move through the city, drunken revelers still celebrating their victory block her path. When she finally reaches the prince, it is too late; the invaders have already stormed the gates. The Mountain Girl valiantly tries to protect the prince but is fatally struck by an arrow. Still she manages to crawl toward the throne of the dead prince. She dies at the base.

In a film filled with superb visual imagery, the final closing-iris shot of the dying Mountain Girl is unforgettable. Talmadge’s performance is amazing, running the gamut from broad comedy to action (that’s her driving that chariot) and finally to tragedy. Watching this great film today, the viewer is sure to be startled by the modernity of the Mountain Girl. She thinks for herself, makes her own decisions, is heroic on an epic scale and dies a noble death.

The film made the teenaged (her birth date is debatable) Constance Talmadge a star, and she reigned throughout the silent era as a major box-office draw, usually in comedies (her sister Norma was the drama queen). In 1916 Talmadge co-starred with Douglas Fairbanks in The Matrimaniac. Among her few surviving films are The Primitive Lover (1922) with Harrison Ford and The Duchess of Buffalo (1927) with the Italian star, Tullio Carminati, after which Talmadge made only three more films. She retired after the release of Venus (1929), a silent film she made in France after the “sound revolution” had swept Hollywood.

Constance Talmadge is one of the very few silent stars that never attempted a talking picture. Indeed, she once chided Norma (after 2 failed talkie attempts), “Quit pressing your luck, baby. The critics can’t knock those trust funds Mama set up for us.”

While Constance Talmadge (known as “Dutch” to her friends) has faded from most filmgoers’ memories, to the true film buff she remains a magical and elusive star of the silent era. Although only a handful of her films remain, (sister Norma hasn’t fared much better with surviving films) we have a few of her 20’s features by which to judge her appeal. And aside from her comedies, we have the magnificent Intolerance in which Talmadge created a strong and intelligent character who still captivates through her vivid display of wit, talent, and just plain guts.

Oddly, the Talmadge sisters’ lasting legacy may be real estate. Talmadge Street in Hollywood is named for them, and the Talmadge District of San Diego, named after the three Talmadge sisters. The neighborhood is situated near San Diego State University and set off by the recently restored Talmadge Gates. Talmadge was established in 1925 by real estate developers and funded substantially by the sisters and Joseph Schenck, who was then President of United Artists and husband of Norma. On January 3, 1926, the sisters hosted a dedication ceremony, which Buster Keaton (married to Natalie) attended.